If you have ever been inclined to question whether the medium of the videogame could be considered an art, you would find a collection of certainties as divided as they are accurate. In truth, art is a subjective term, defined by each of us as we explore and experience an idea. In the event I ever had to plead my case, to justify my belief in the videogame as an art form, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West would be a good place to start. Not because the world is visually stunning, akin to a detailed oil painting – though it absolutely is, I assure you – it’s because Enslaved targets the very reason for the question – the human condition.
Enslaved tells the story of two individual characters, brought together through the circumstances of an unforgiving, hostile future. Through their uneasy partnership, we’re subjected to a terrible, beautiful new world that encompasses minute traces of familiarity amongst an abundance of the strange and foreign. For Monkey and Trip, the dual protagonists of this journey, the rules of this world are already common knowledge – but as an outside observer there is wonder to be had in the tiniest detail that they take for granted. I admire this game for the subtle respect it pays us, never bluntly divulging the context of the world in some flashy narrative; rather, allowing us to draw piecemeal conclusions over the course of the experience.
On the surface, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West presents a visual experience as bold and beautiful as they come. For a story set in some dystopian nightmarish-future, where instead of living one merely survives, the world is as wondrous as it is dangerous. Lush greens and fiery hues of red adorn the carcass of a destroyed metropolis, the byproduct of nature in unrestricted bloom. The world is simply alive with colorful radiance, a theme that is carried throughout our journey within it.
Each massive environment maintains a distinct feel, whether it be: the lushness of a city nature has reclaimed, the mechanical innards of a colossal vehicle or the dreary expanse of a vast decrepit junkyard. Every color resonates, conjuring up a new persona with each spanning location while challenging our preconceived notions of a post-apocalypse. It’s this dichotomy between the beautiful and the dead that creates such a striking visual context and solidifies the environment itself as a member of the cast.
The characters themselves come alive through the collaborative efforts of impeccable animation and industrial grade motion capture. From conception, the characters of Enslaved were designed to emulate the near limitless emotion of humanity found within the smallest gesture and most subtle of expressions. Amazingly, this is a task they ultimately failed, because as the story unfolds these characters cease to be virtual entities, they become something more, something human.
I could spend hours, even days, trying to find the words to describe the haunting realism they portray, coming up short in the end. The animations for each character – the way they move, the way they don’t – they’re more than cleverly programmed gestures, they’re communication. In the few idle moments we spend riding an elevator, Trip stretches, rotating her shoulders and then her neck. Monkey assesses his surroundings, glancing about the confines of the elevator for nothing in particular, perhaps out of curiosity. These are the behaviors of real people, people who walk and breathe and think and feel.
Looking back over my notes taken while playing Enslaved, at every chapter there is a reference to how amazed I am by the facial expressions. It’s a subtle smile on the face of Monkey, or Trip’s furrowed brow when she is scared. If the character dialogue is the narrative vehicle of Enslaved, then facial expression is the road on which it travels. You simply cannot overstate the emotional weight at the sight of genuine fear in Monkey’s eyes or the tear-inducing look of absolute heartbreak on the face of Trip. These are not just expertly animated characters designed to carry a story, they’re Monkey and Trip; they are as flawed and beautiful as you or I, and they’re real.
Adding to the remarkable level of personality that comes across through expression, Enslaved goes the extra mile in solidifying these characters with consistent and genuine voice talent. Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw skillfully lend their voices, authenticating Monkey and Trip through all of those little inflections that make us inexplicably human. This equates to a reliable emotional investment in each of the actors as they never stray too far from the confines of the character you’ve come to know. By the end of this story, if you’ve really invested in these two, you’ll understand volumes more about them simply by hearing the emotion in their voices.
Musically, Enslaved dabbles in the same contradiction that creates such a striking visual experience, if only to a lesser degree. The soundtrack is laced with plucky strings that would normally accompany a cheerful and positive setting, yet like the visuals, this feels strangely at home. While other tracks do set the expected tone by employing dramatic strings and somber horns, their use often contrasts the task at hand.
Through a particularly grueling, time-sensitive platforming scenario, these exact instruments were used to create an ominous atmosphere, and rightfully so, as one hesitation meant a swift drop into oblivion. However, they were delivered in an almost calming manner, contradicting the frantic reality of the moment. These instances, while seemingly out-of-place, actually create a quirky atmosphere that affords us the opportunity to challenge our preconceived notions with these newfound perceptions.
The actual gameplay is somewhat less open to interpretation, delivering a straightforward experience comprised largely of platforming with a healthy dose of combat intertwined. Platforming consists of the sole playable character, Monkey, utilizing his impressive physicality to traverse the environment’s often daunting verticality. Scaling structures, swinging across cables and leaping between platforms are all accomplished by simply pushing the desired direction and jumping, which amounts to a fast and fluid mechanic that becomes genuinely intense during occasions when you must complete a segment in a short amount of time.
While these time-sensitive periods add tension and help occasionally elevate the platforming beyond a simple mechanic, the rest of it grows somewhat tiresome once the initial awe of each new setting has faded. While fun at first, there is little investment in this mechanic since you are only permitted to leap between established grips. While that may sound obvious, this effectively invalidates the need for skill and removes any possibility of negative consequences — other than perhaps being slowed down for a time — from a majority of the gameplay.
While some ledges or handholds only support your weight for so long before crumbling, they lose the intended impact midway through the game, as moving from platform to platform as fast as possible becomes second nature. However, the need to find alternate routes for Trip, who is not as physically gifted, adds a layer of depth and helps to expand on a mechanic that often just becomes a means to an end – rather than the enjoyment.
When you’re not dangling hundreds of feet in the air from the skeleton of a skyscraper, you’ll likely be engaged in combat with several of the varied mechanical enemies found within Enslaved. Like the platforming, combat is fast and fluid, using two buttons for weak or strong attacks, while adding the ability to block or dodge incoming attacks.
At first glance, this may seem overly simplistic, which is true in the beginning. Though as you progress, the difficulty and variety of your enemies increases, requiring a subtle finesse in combat that only comes with practice. On the hardest difficulty setting, the combat is actually quite formidable while you’re still learning the ropes and I found myself relieved to survive any encounter against multiple enemies at the same time.
The savage mechanical contraptions are themselves, impressively visceral. Programmed for the sole purpose of finding and killing humans, they behave with the same feral indifference you might find in the untamed creatures of the wild. It’s wince-inducing to watch when these machines succeed in their task; nonchalantly slapping Monkey against a rock to achieve the desired results or using a clawed foot to catch Trip by the hair, yanking her into the air so it can finish the job.
Worse still are the clockwork horrors that you might consider “bosses” – which increase the size, speed and lethality on a scale that dwarfs the others. The boss encounters are generally a mix of combat and platforming, often utilizing the Cloud, a hovering disc that allows Monkey to speed over the terrain. These periods are brief, but fun, and blur the line between open-ended combat and scripted events, usually culminating in an brutal killing cinematic – like forceful-spine-removal brutal.
Fortunately, fallen enemies drop tech orbs, which can also be found scattered throughout the world. These orbs act like the games currency, allowing you to unlock moves and purchase upgrades for your character in a variety of fields. For example, drop a few thousand tech orbs into your melee field to unlock a counterattack, which adds a timing specific window after blocking, through which you can retaliate. Upgrade your health if you’re having trouble surviving harder fights, or your shield to protect against incoming fire and enemy damage. You can even enhance your ranged prowess by upgrading your staff to fire increasingly powerful bolts of plasma. With all of these possibilities there is an impressive amount of customization to be found within the system, as each upgrade adds more intricacy to the combat, making for an experience that can be as complex as you wish.
Despite the incredible level of detail within Enslaved, it stumbles on some of the most basic gameplay mechanics. The controllable camera is unpredictable – sluggish at times while overly sensitive at others – generally failing any time you need to look around quickly and reliably. This is at its worst during combat scenarios, where multiple enemies will be off-screen for the much of a fight, making it incredibly difficult to anticipate incoming attacks. I regularly found myself blocking any time I heard a mechanical sound that I couldn’t immediately attribute to an enemy in my field of vision, which often broke the intended flow of combat.
Occasionally the fixed camera will abruptly change angles, in order to provide the user with a new breathtaking view as you progress across a bridge, plateau or catwalk. Unfortunately the new angle often sends you running in the opposite direction, which can be repeated several times before you stop and slowly enter the new frame; an issue that is eerily reminiscent of early Resident Evil titles. While I can understand why they chose to utilize fixed wide-angle shots in order to emphasize the scenery, it detracts from the experience by yanking the player out of the immersion that Enslaved tries so hard to build.
The camera aside, Enslaved overlooks elements that have become commonplace in games today. For example, if you die and your last checkpoint started with a cutscene (which is nearly always the case), you must rewatch that scene – there’s no skipping here. It’s not terrible, as the character interactions are what really makes this game shine, but when you’ve died for the eighth time during a particularly painful fight, watching the same cinematic introduction needlessly adds to the frustration.
Behind the stunning veneer and swift gameplay lies the heart and soul of Enslaved: Odyssey To The West; the narrative. Enslaved itself is a re-imagining of the Chinese tale Journey to the West, and uses the ancient text as a springboard to tell a story about the power of human emotion.
The plot, I found, ultimately stagnated towards the end; falling just short of the profound experience I felt they were approaching, but were never able to reach. Yet there is still an amazing story to be told within this driving plot, namely the journey itself.
If there was a reason for making this title, it was so that story could be told, so these characters could come to life. The title plays on its own strengths, providing us an incredibly rewarding portrayal of two lost souls that find solace in one another, albeit begrudgingly at first. The true depth of Enslaved reveals itself in that relationship and how it blossoms throughout the entirety of the journey. This is a character driven experience, invoking powerful emotions all the way to the end as our two headliners lift each other up, and drag each other down.
Unfortunately the entirety of the journey will only run you about 12-16 hours, depending on the level of difficulty you choose (I highly recommend HARD to expand on the experience.) Once the story has concluded, there isn’t much in the way of lasting appeal, due in part to the absence of multiplayer or alternative modes. Achievement or trophy hunters may find themselves replaying to acquire all of the collectibles scattered throughout the world, but any real replay value, like a good book, will come from repeated playthroughs once the details get a little fuzzy and the emotional impact has waned.
Still, long after you forget the exact details of the plot, you will remember the utterly real personalities caught up within it. The well-written, touching and genuine dialogue, often wittier and more humorous than it has any right to be, has cemented these two characters within my psyche – maybe forever.
Enslaved is a perfect example of how the videogame can be a storytelling medium; maybe not first and foremost, but it is undeniably possible. Though it suffers from “Videogame 101″ mechanical oversights, it manages to deliver an enjoyable gameplay experience, a respectable plot line and an amazing cast of characters. Enslaved: Odyssey To The West made me think, it made me feel and it made me care. To me, that is an art of the highest form.